Deconstructing Hunger Games Heroine Katniss Everdeen

Hunger GamesA few years ago I stumbled upon a series that I knew was special. Before the movies, before the screaming fans, when I first read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins I knew I’d found something special. It wasn’t the premise that drew me in – I almost didn’t read the book because it sounded too gory for me – it was the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She was tough but vulnerable, self-sacrificing but a survivor. I had already finished the first book of my own series, The Conjurors, and it made me rethink how to create a memorable, compelling YA fantasy heroine.

Below are some of the lessons that I took away from my analysis of Katniss.

Serious flaws make for a more compelling protagonist.
I think most authors know that their protagonist can’t be perfect. But at least for me, I find myself not wanting to make my heroine, Valerie, too flawed. I am afraid she’ll be unlikable. But analyzing Katniss taught me that this is a mistake. It is because Katniss can be angry, weak, and even lose track of her moral compass that I felt like she was so powerful. When she indulged her flaws, like when she got drunk and wound up in the fetal position in a basement after finding out she would be thrown into the hunger games for a second time, she felt human. When she overcame a flaw, like when she found the courage to inspire the rebels with her words in Mockingjay, it felt like a greater triumph because it didn’t come easily to her.

Protagonists don’t always have to take the moral high ground.
From the time in The Hunger Games when Katniss uses trackerjackers to attack her enemies to the end of Mockingjay when she assassinates the new president, Katniss doesn’t sit around over-analyzing the moral implications of every decision. She is a creature of action, which is part of what makes her so fascinating to watch. She isn’t like Superman, who refuses to kill. She is willing to do what it takes to survive and protect the ones she loves, even if her conscience is tortured by her decisions later.

Romance should not be the protagonist’s primary motivator.
I am willing to admit that I love romance, no matter what book I’m reading. Would I have objected to a few additional tender moments in The Hunger Games series? No. But I love that for Katniss, romance is always secondary to greater concerns. She’s not a girl to wallow and make all of her decisions based on the whims of her heart. Contrary to what I would have expected before reading this series, this makes the romantic triangle in the story more compelling, because we care more as readers what Katniss’ decision will be than she does herself. She’s too busy trying to save her district and fend off insanity.

When pushed past what she can stand, it’s okay to let your heroine break.
So many heroines and heroes come close to being broken by their experiences, but it’s not every day that you see a protagonist who truly is destroyed. The series is as much about Katniss rebuilding herself after extreme trauma as it is about breaking down in the first place. And though many of my friends were not fully satisfied with how the series ended, I thought it was courageous. It was the happiest ending possible for her character. PTSD doesn’t vanish overnight, it is a lifelong struggle. But I felt that Katniss didn’t give in to her tragedy, she fought to make a life for herself that was full.

Who are heroines and heroes in literature who have inspired your writing?

The Curse of the Whiny Protagonist

shutterstock_148391531I’ll never forget reading book 5 of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Suddenly, sunny, kind little Harry was a brooding teenager. I remember thinking that I didn’t like him as much anymore. I understood that he was evolving as a character, and part of being a teenager is embracing angst – especially if you’ve just witnessed first-hand the death of a classmate. But his likeability factor plummeted. Of course, in spite of this change, this book is still incredible. I cried at the end. But it always stayed with me as the one book in the series where Harry didn’t feel like Harry.

So you’d think I learned a lesson from reading that, but after sending the second book in The Conjurors Series to beta readers, everyone said the same thing. My protagonist, Valerie, was too angst-ridden. And as I re-read and made edits, I realized they were right. Low self-esteem is part of her character, but it was over-the-top. Maybe massive low self-doubt is a natural part of being a teenage girl, but it didn’t read well in a heroine.

That’s when I realized that we don’t want to read about people who are exactly like everyone we meet in daily life. We want heroines who are exceptional, who, in spite of their flaws, rise above petty concerns and are capable of a depth of compassion or bravery or intelligence that we hope we are capable of, but we know most people aren’t. Maybe this isn’t true for every genre, but I truly believe the best YA fantasy books I’ve read all adhere to this idea in their protagonist. Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior – I could go on and on – all tap into the best versions of themselves under difficult circumstances.

That being said, I know this opinion isn’t one that everyone shares. The Twilight Series or even The Catcher in the Rye prove that you can be successful with a whiny protagonist who is written well. But I confess that these books are not on my favorites list. However, if you do love super-angsty protagonists, check out this Goodreads list on popular whiny protagonists – it gave me a good chuckle. It’s a definite counterpoint to the heroes I mentioned above, and proof that in the hands of a skilled writer, any protagonist can be compelling.

Of course, the danger is going to the opposite extreme and making protagonists too perfect – something that can be equally annoying. Finding that tricky balance with my own heroine is something that evolves with every chapter I write. Hopefully, after hundreds of hours of writing and edits, Valerie will come across as a real, but exceptional, teenage girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances who rises to the challenges she encounters.

I’m Cheating on my Protagonist

shutterstock_69810904I have a confession. I’m in a long-term, committed writing relationship with the current protagonist of The Conjurors Series, Valerie Diaz. She’s great – loyal, smart and filled with integrity. I’m not ready to end our affair – we’re only two books in to a four-book series. But I can’t stop thinking about someone else. While I should be plotting Valerie’s next move, I’m fantasizing about the heroine that I’m going to write about next.

I’m afraid that if I don’t get a grip, I’ll lose the momentum I need to finish my current series, which is planned to be completed at the end of 2014. By that estimate, I really shouldn’t be daydreaming about other heroines at least until book four is drafted. But it’s tempting. My favorite part of the writing process is creating characters and planning plots. All of the characters and plots in The Conjurors Series have been developed, at least at a high level. What’s left is the execution, which I also love, but doesn’t have the same thrilling joy that only giving characters life can bring.

Then, of course, come the comparisons. Valerie’s much nicer than my next heroine, but I think I actually like the new one more. In real life we could totally hang out, whereas with Valerie I’d have to be on my best behavior. Which naturally makes me feel more guilty. They’re both my creations – shouldn’t I love them equally? Of course, I’m aware that the new heroine and I are still in the honeymoon phase of our relationship. I’ve yet to become bogged down in the day-to-day grind of hurtling her into strange and painful situations and then carefully extricating her.

How do you stay focused on your current project when the next is luring you with its siren call? Do you give in and cheat, or stay the course until your current writing project is completely finished?

How to Create a Likeably Flawed Protagonist

shutterstock_104313347As a writer, I’ve often heard about the trap of creating a character who’s too perfect. They don’t seem human and can often come off flat and boring. If there’s no room to grow, then where’s the story going? On the other hand, creating a flawed character is a tricky business. With a few notable exceptions, readers want to root for the protagonist, so they must be likable. Sometimes we may want to shake them, but they aren’t so irredeemable that we want to shut the book.

The best protagonists walk this line with flair and originality. Below are the lessons I learned from some of my favorite, classic authors on how to create characters whose flaws are an integral part of what makes them compelling.

Make a Flaw a Secret Strength
Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels of all time because of the wonderful heroine at the center of her story. Jane has a temper, railing against the unfairness she encounters with her family and at her horrible boarding school, rather than accepting her lot quietly, piously and passively like a good little girl. It’s this fighting spirit that makes Jane so lovable to the reader and her love interest, Mr. Rochester. She is also uncompromising in her values, leaving the man she loves when she finds out that he’s married, even though she wants to stay with him. This stubbornness almost costs her happiness and even her life, but when she manages to take a risk at the end of the story, her reunion with Mr. Rochester is all the sweeter for knowing how hard it was for Jane to turn around and come back to him.

Counterbalance Flaws with Self-Sacrifice
A Tale of Two Cities – Sydney Carton

Charles Dickens knew how to paint bright spots of humanity even in its darkest hour, and Sydney Carton is the best of his creations. A cynical, alcoholic and depressed character at the beginning of the novel, Sydney is completely transformed by his love of a woman to give his life to save the man she loves. His story wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if he was  better man. It is overcoming his flaws, or achieving true goodness in spite of them, which makes this story one of those that stays with you forever.

Choose a Flaw People Can Relate To
Hamlet – Hamlet

There are dozens of wonderful Shakesperian examples of flawed heroes to choose from, but Hamlet stands out as one of the characters who strikes a chord with many people. His fundamental goodness – loyalty, courage and committment to the truth – are undermined by his flaws – his indecision, pride, and depression. He’s a character that you simultaneously root for and want to shake. Every time I read the play I find myself somehow hoping that his final demise can be prevented. He’s a character that has taken root in my brain as a reminder that good intentions without action can be disasterous.

Let Your Character Revel in their Flaw
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Lisbeth Salander

Perhaps this isn’t quite a classic, but I couldn’t end this post without mentioning Lisbeth – a violent, anti-social vigilante with an obsession with revenge and justice. What’s not to love? Stieg Larsson did an incredible job created a complex, multi-layered heroine whose flaws make her more lovable, rather than less. She’s tough, able to take down men three times her size, but also vulnerable, a woman alone who only knows how to turn to herself when she needs help. Watching her kick butt is gratifying and riveting.

Who are some of your favorite examples of delightfully flawed heroes and heroines?